A Necessary Sacrifice

The recent flood of revelations about men behaving badly has touched off a revolution that is culminating in zero tolerance of sexual harassment and sexual assault. But, as in all revolutions, this one has its instances of revolutionary justice that are not always just (does the punishment fit the crime?) but are often messy and usually necessary.

Senator Al Franken’s resignation speech

Sorry, Senator Al Franken, but you had to go. Your indiscretions may not rise to the seriousness of President Donald Trump’s nor Roy Moore’s, and, in a later time, when society has worked out the proper range of punishments for different examples of harassment and assault, you probably would have been treated more leniently. But, you were called out at the moment when women insisted on a halt to old gender interactions. So, in the name of revolutionary justice, you had to be sacrificed.

Franken is a progressive on most issues, including those affecting women and gender relationships, but none of that matters at this particular historical moment. He is a serious senator who may have had further ambitions, but it became his fate to serve history in a different way. Franken was forced out of the Senate in the furtherance of both democratic and societal change and Democratic policy.

Over the last half-century, the status of women in the workplace has undergone revolutionary and democratic change. Once largely consigned to secretarial work, teaching, and nursing, women now are on the verge of achieving equality in the workplace. The revolution is still in progress, and many men, no doubt, feel threatened by having women at the next desk or in the conference room, not to mention as bosses. Threatened men respond in many ways, some by harassing or assaulting their female colleagues. Some lecherous bosses invoke the old medieval concept of droit de seigneur, the right of the lord to sample all the local women. Franken reportedly dredged up this hoary justification, allegedly telling one woman he tried to kiss, “It’s my right as an entertainer.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, calling for Senator Franken to resign

Women are saying, in the words of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, “Enough is enough. We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay, none of it is acceptable. We as elected leaders should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard, and we should fundamentally be valuing women. That is where this debate has to go.” Given that standard, Franken had leave the Senate.

Change is not even across society. Certain professions, perhaps dominated by progressive and liberal men and women, are leading the way in weeding out predatory men. Entertainment (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al.), media (Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and others), and politics (Democrats in politics, in the main) have witnessed a purging of the ranks. Other professions, and Republicans in politics, have far to go.

Franken understood that he had to fall on his sword, saying in his resignation speech, “This decision is not about me.” But, he vowed to continue fighting for democratic change. “I may be resigning my seat,” he asserted, “but I am not giving up my voice. I will continue to stand up for the things I believe in as a citizen and as an activist.”

Donald Trump with Billy Bush

Franken also grasped his role in furthering Democratic policy. “I, of all people,” he said, “am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.” Senator Franken, it is not irony, which is mainly a literary device, but an outrage! The president of the United States boasted on tape, released weeks prior to his election, of groping women, saying when “you’re a star…. You can do anything.” Several women have credibly accused Roy Moore of predatory behavior toward them while they were in their teens and he was in his thirties. One claimed he inappropriately touched her when she was fourteen. Moore denies the accusation, although he has, creepily, claimed he never dated any teenager “without the permission of her mother.”

Franken’s departure — with Trump in the White House and Moore running for the Senate with the support of Republicans — allows Democrats to capture the moral high ground and to further Democratic policy of protecting and advancing women’s rights. Franken’s continued presence in the Senate would have been a continuous distraction, muddying the message against Trump and Moore. Democrats would have a hard time explaining the difference between Franken, who is white, and Representative John Conyers, an  African American who was forced out of the House amid allegations of repeated sexual misconduct.

President Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky, 1997

Compelling Franken to leave the Senate also provides Democrats with a redo for botching accusations against President Bill Clinton two decades ago. True, Clinton’s relationship with an intern was consensual, but it still reeked of a power imbalance, and it was not the only credible accusation against the man from Hope. Senator Gillibrand, who sits in the seat formerly held by Hillary Clinton, said last month that Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, had it occurred today, would have been cause to force him to resign. “Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances there should be a very different reaction,” she said.  “And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump and a very different conversation about allegations against him.”

“Things have changed today” because of a revolution in attitudes toward sexual harassment. As in all revolutions, some have to be sacrificed in the name of revolutionary justice. Senator Franken, it may not have been just that you had to leave, but it was necessary.

Posted December 12, 2017

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